Tips: infrared filming

Colin Jackson, is a producer at the BBC Natural History Unit. He’s become an expert on infrared filming through his work on programmes like The Truth About Lions and Big Cat Live.

Normal cameras are designed to work under white light, whether natural or artificial. White light is visible to humans and animals. However, lots of animal behaviour happens at night, in the dark, so if natural history teams want to capture this behaviour they use infrared light to light the scene, and special cameras which can capture light at these wavelengths.

Used well, infrared can capture animal behaviour never previously seen or recorded. It creates an intimate glimpse into animal life at night.

These are Colin’s tips on successful infrared filming.

Consider your options
Like any kind of specialist filming, infrared involves special camera kit and additional planning. If there is any way you can light your subject with white light then you can use all the cameras and techniques you’re already used to and save yourself a lot of effort and money. Some animals can be habituated to perform normal nocturnal behaviour under white light. An example of this is the bats seen in Richards Hammond’s Invisible Worlds.

"Understand your camera and be prepared to fix it on location." – Colin Jackson

Plan the lighting
However if you are filming wild animals at night and you need to capture natural behaviour then it may be infrared is the only way to go.

Your lighting will be crucial. The difficulty of working with infrared is that the light is invisible to the human eye. The screen or viewfinder on your infrared camera will be the only things that can show you where your lights are pointing. Whoever is doing your lighting needs either an infrared camera to guide them, or you need to have excellent communication in place to tell them how to position the lights.

The Truth About Lions captured beautiful footage of lions feeding and relaxing at night. Colin reveals that they used two trucks to capture this footage. The first one had the camera team in it. The second had the lights, and they were guided by the first team about how to position the lights to capture the pride at play.

Get to know the kit
Make sure that you and your camera team are familiar with the kit before you go on location. And make sure that you know how to fix it if it goes wrong.

HD or SD?
Currently there is a very limited range of HD infrared cameras. There is a greater choice in SD. However, most broadcasters insist that only a small proportion of a programme can be in SD, so you must check this before heading out on a shoot. However, because infrared is monochrome, it often upgrades very well. The Great Rift featured an infrared sequence with baboons shot in SD which was upgraded for broadcast in HD.